Tuesday 30 October 2018

Remaining Soldiers

There is a popular history book waiting to be written about the role that disbanded military units have played in historical events: young men once gainfully employed who suddenly have nothing to do and who are trained in and accustomed to extreme violence can cause all kinds of mischief; multiply this by the tens of thousand or hundreds of thousand and suddenly they become societal problems - even global problems - in their own right. You could almost say that the demobbing of the German and Russian armies at the close of WWI was a significant cause all on its own of all the mayhem that followed; you could also spin the final conquest of the American West as partly the mere consequence of the unleashing of lots of demobbed soldiers at the end of a long and brutal war. A much more modern example is the sudden dissolution of the Iraqi army during de-Ba'athification in 2003-2004, which is said to have been supplied much of the fuel for the insurgency that followed and was also clearly a significant factor in the rise of Islamic State.

(I have a feeling I may have written a blog post on this subject before, but if I have, I don't remember where.)

On a smaller scale, Japanese "remainers" in Indochina played a key role in training the Viet Minh after WWII in their war against the French, and hence subsequently against the Americans; in a strange historical twist, a lot of the French Foreign Legionnaires in that conflict were also actually German mercenaries fresh from the war in Europe. Japanese troops who had previously been stationed in China also played a prominent role as mercenaries in the Chinese civil war in the 1945-1949 period, and let's not forget, of course, Xenophon and the march of the 10,000 - which is basically a story about a disbanded military force, and which supposedly inspired Alexander in his conquest of Persia.

The idea of ex-soldiers stranded far from home has been used before, in Twilight: 2000, but works equally well for fantasy games. Why are the PCs in Yoon-Suin, or Tsolyanu, or Sigil, or wherever else your campaign begins? Well, maybe they happened to be there fighting a war and the war's over. What could be more a more natural next step than for them to begin looking around for other opportunities for wealth and glory?

Friday 26 October 2018

And Now She's Got Helicopters...

And Hosaka's helicopter is back, no lights at all, hunting on infrared, feeling for body heat. A muffled whine as it turns, a kilometer away, swinging back toward us, toward New Rose. Too fast a shadow, against the glow of Narita.
-William Gibson, "New Rose Hotel" 
It struck me today, as two unidentified helicopters hovered fairly low, in close proximity, over my neighbourhood, that you don't get a much more cyberpunk technology than the chopper.

Helicopters are about great inequality: inequality of military power (the Huey in Vietnam, the Hind in Afghanistan), inequality of wealth (the super-rich sky commuters in Sao Paulo, Jakarta, Mumbai, heading for their weekend haunts through the crowded sky on a Friday evening), and even at some level sheer inequality of physical geography (I can see you, and I am above you; you don't get much more of an unequal relationship than that).

Helicopters are about surveillance. From up there, they can see everything below. And it ain't hidden. You don't spy on somebody by helicopter. You openly watch them. You tell them: I have you in my sights, so watch out.

Helicopters are about intimidation. They are loud, powerful, and almost omnipotent when they are in the sky. They can move at will. Something about them makes you freeze, and look up. They make you feel like an Amazonian tribesman confronting the awesome force of modern technology for the first time.

Helicopters are about assassination, abduction, and carefully deployed force at a personal level. Helicopters don't drop nuclear bombs. They carry Navy SEALS teams to covertly kill Osama Bin Laden.

The internet and cyberware might be the technologies we think of when we think of cyberpunk. For me the chopper trumps them.

Wednesday 24 October 2018

Yoon-Suin Community Continuity

There is a relatively good Yoon-Suin community page on G+ which, aside from the blog, is the main place for discussing the setting online. There is lots of interesting stuff there. Clearly, that page will have to disappear when G+ goes away. I am currently considering options for replacements.

Please let me know in the comments to this entry (or on the post on G+ - I will cross-post this to the Yoon-Suin community page there) what your preferred option is:

a) A discussion forum on the Noisms Games website (yes, this exists!)
b) A subreddit, if this can be arranged
c) Something on MeWe (I don't have a MeWe account yet, but it seems to be where a lot of G+ exiles are heading)
d) Some other better option I've not thought of (and tell me what that is and why it's good!)

Please don't recommend anything to do with Facebook or Twitter; I don't use them and dont intend to start.

Tuesday 23 October 2018

Four Forge Spells

A cold evening in late October, with the wet wind washing against the windows and the dead leaves rattling in the street outside. Thoughts turn to the Forge. Here are some spells for you, just for fun:

Festering Cloth, Level 3. This spell is cast on a piece of cloth or other material, not smaller than the spread of his hand from thumbtip to little finger tip, and not bigger than his height from head to foot. It imbues the material with a disease, which is passed on to anybody who touches the cloth with their naked flesh, including the spellcaster himself; this condition is permanent. Any disease may be used, but by default the affliction is as follows: after 16 hours the victim begins to lose 1 hp and 1 point of STR and CON per hour until any of those scores reaches 0, at which point he or she dies.

Lucid Adoration, Level 1. This spell acts as Charm Person, but the victim retains the knowledge that he or she has been charmed and is entirely lucid for the duration of the spell. He or she must act as though charmed (obeying commands within reason, protecting the caster, etc.) but is able while doing so to complain, plot revenge, shout warnings to others, and so on.

Jullavierre's World Signal, Level 6. This spell allows the caster to send a signal, in the form of a bright light in the sky showing a single sigil or letter, which is seen or heard everywhere in the world. It lasts for 1 minute per caster level.

Ubara's Slate Ally, Level 6. This spell conjures a stone golem formed from slate, consisting of a large flat slab of stone with arms and legs formed from smaller slats of slate. It has the stats and abilities of a stone golem, but it suffers double damage from bludgeoning attacks and is immune to edged weapons. It is thin enough to pass through gaps 6" wide, and can set itself up as a wall, 8' high and 4' wide, which cannot be pushed over and which protects anyone immediately behind it from missile weapons, magic spells including fireball blasts, and so on.

Wednesday 17 October 2018

Going is easy but returning is not

A lot of pedestrian crossings in Japanese cities play the haunting children's lullaby "Toryanse" to let you know when to cross - something which says more about East-West cultural differences than I think any words could. This is the tune itself; you can find other more "produced" versions on YouTube, but this version is more appropriate for the context in which the tune is generally heard (other than pedestrian crossings).

The words are in an old form of Japanese, from the Edo period, and aren't easily translated. You get different versions in different places. It is most often represented as a call-and-response dialogue, but it always isn't quite clear which of the parties is saying which line, and one of the words used, kowai, which in modern Japanese almost always means "frightening", could also just mean "difficult" in those days, and that seems to fit better. These are a few of my alternative translations depending on how you interpret the order of the speakers, with A the first speaker and B the second:

Alternative 1
Alternative 2
Alternative 3
通りゃんせ 通りゃんせ
A: You may pass through, you may pass through
A: You may pass through, you may pass through
A: You may pass through, you may pass through
ここはどこの 細道じゃ
B: What is this narrow path?
B: What is this narrow path?
B: What is this narrow path?
天神さまの 細道じゃ
A: This is the narrow path that leads to the Tenjin shrine
A: This is the narrow path that leads to the Tenjin shrine
B: Is this the narrow path that leads to the Tenjin shrine?
ちっと通して 下しゃんせ
B: Would you please let me pass?
B: Would you please let me pass?
B: Would you please let me pass?
御用のないもの 通しゃせぬ
A: Those without good reason may not pass through
A: Those without good reason may not pass through
A: Those without good reason may not pass through
この子の七つの 御祝いに
B: To celebrate this child’s 7th birthday
B: To celebrate this child’s 7th birthday
B: To celebrate this child’s 7th birthday
御札を納めに 参ります
B: I have come with an offering
B: I have come with an offering
B: I have come with an offering
行きはよいよい 帰りはこわい
A: Going in is easy, but returning is not
A: Going in is easy, but returning is not
A: Going in is easy, but returning is not
B: Even so, please let me pass
A: But even so
A: But even so
通りゃんせ 通りゃんせ
A: You may pass through, you may pass through
A: You may pass through, you may pass through
A: You may pass through, you may pass through

(If you prefer a "creepier" version, you would translate the third to last line as "going in is easy, but returning is frightening [or scary]", which in my view makes it a bit melodramatic. It also must be said that on weblio, the meaning of the line in question is described as "going in is easy, but returning is not". You can also mix and match between the three alternatives if you think the final three lines are ABA rather than AAA.)

Interpretations vary, but the wikipedia article is I guess the mainstream view; it suggests the exchange is between a guard and somebody wanting to visit the shrine to celebrate their child reaching 7 years of age (3rd, 5th and 7th birthdays are special occasions for kids in Japan for Buddhist-associated reasons). According to weblio, there's no clear reason by returning is not easy, or "scary" - it could be because one must use all one's energy climbing uphill on the way and has no energy for the return route (or, I suppose, vice versa - maybe the way is downhill and the way back requires an upward climb).

But to me there is something more to it than that, especially in the context of the melody, which seems to make the journey fraught with underlying tension - "going in is easy, but returning is not" - and hints at much darker themes. Death seems to be lurking somewhere - or, possibly, the past: you can go on (if you have a good reason!) but going back is hard.

I love stuff like this. In particular, I love the idea of guards with ambiguous requirements and warnings. Fighting Fantasy books in particular were full of that sort of thing: it works well in the context of a gamebook where the guard can't be questioned, but can only issue dire warnings which you must needs ignore.

I also like the idea of a path which is easy to follow in one direction, but hard in another. It's difficult to operationalise in game terms (other than by making encounters much more difficult if going in one direction rather than another, which is a bit of a boring way of doing it); perhaps something as simple as section of dungeon being much bigger physically when travelling one way than another, resulting in many more random encounters?

Tuesday 16 October 2018

Diversity of Language

If you are interested in thinking about fantasy languages - at the level of sound rather than the technicalities of grammar, vocabulary and so on - you could do worse than subscribe to WikiTongues on YouTube, a collection of videos of people speaking various languages. Some of them may not be native speakers, or entirely proficient, but most seem authentic.

Just for fun, here are examples from around the British Isles. First, Welsh:

Second, Scottish Gaelic:

Third, Manx:

And now here are some from further afield. First, Mingrelian:

Now Mapudungun:

And Tibetan:

Friday 12 October 2018

Old Blog Renaissance

As you may well be aware, Google+ is disappearing next year (at least as a public social media platform). It will be a shame to see it go - but there are undoubtedly benefits. Life is all about trade-offs. G+ had its good points: it made networking easier, and was more informal - there's no question a lot of products have come into being that would not have done without its existence, because of the ease with which it facilitated creative partnerships. And it was a great way to get players for online games - the biggest advantage of all.

But there were opportunity costs. A lot of my G+ feed seemed to be perpetually clogged up by political discussions, vaguebooking, and other "noise" (the polite way of referring to it). More importantly, I think a lot of online discussion about traditional D&D and other old games migrated to G+ around 2012-2014, and blogs suffered as a result. We lost a lot as a consequence - blog entries may be slightly more detached and staid than G+ discussions, but they are also longer and more carefully written, and more thoughtful. Social media saps nuance and rewards pithiness at the expense of real engagement.

I also think G+ had to a certain extent run its course for me anyway; I had started to visit it less and less, because discussion there was it seemed to me becoming less and less about games and more and more about peripheral subjects. I also think - although I don't have much evidence of this, just a vague sense from looking at traffic sources for my blog - that the platform may have been slowly dying off as a place for "OSR"-types to congregate anyway; there recently seems to have been more vitriol and more shameless plugging of product and rather less interesting chat, and I have certainly been getting fewer hits from it than I would have done in, say, 2013.

So I'll be sorry to see G+ disappear, but I think there will be a welcome rebalancing, now, in the favour of the blogosphere. The beginnings of this are I think already developing, and I must say I feel like my blogging habits have been slightly reinvigorated this week. Onwards and upwards: the future cannot be predicted, but futures can be invented.

Seizing the Initiative

Initiative is a very deep and complicated subject. We all know it when we see it - typically when watching a sporting event. Suddenly, it seems as though one side gains the capacity to act, while the other can only react. The reasons why this happens, though, are not always easy to elucidate. Sometimes it can be put down simply to a sudden flash of individual inspiration - a football manager makes a substitution which makes a decisive impact on the game; a boxer lands a solid punch which momentarily stuns his opponent; a bowler gets a fire in his belly and somehow gets an extra few miles per hour from the ball (cricket fans will remember Mitchell Johnson's complete destruction of Jonathan Trott on day two of the 2013 test at the Gabba, which came out of the blue and not only gave Australia the initiative for the match, but the entire 2013/2014 series - and caused Trott to effectively lose the initiative for the remainder of his career). But other times it seems to simply be part of the natural ebb and flow of a game: when two teams are roughly equally matched, they seem to take turns with the initiative in a way that is hard to attribute to any one factor and can seem to happen almost at random.

We also know it from military history, too. I think the most famous example has to be Thermopylae, which according to cliche gave the Greeks the chance to "wrest" the initiative (when is the word "wrest" ever used but in that context?) from the Persians; other examples are the Battle of Kursk (after which the Wehrmacht "never regained the initiative" on the Eastern front) and Napoleon's failure to "wrest" the initiative at the Battle of Borodino by committing the Imperial Guard, after which he, er, "never regained the initiative" in the Russian campaign. You almost imagine "the initiative" as a physical entity in these descriptions: you take it, seize it, wrest it - reach out and grab it, almost. And then do your best to make sure the opponent doesn't grab it back.

D&D initiative is a bit milquetoast in comparison: if one party is surprised, the other has initiative, but otherwise...roll a d6 and the highest wins. This is modified in various editions, but even then in a boring way, taking into account Dexterity and so forth. It can add some dramatic tension and unpredictability, which in some sense reflects the chaotic and unforeseeable nature of "initiative" itself, but it doesn't give anybody the opportunity to, in British sporting parlance, "seize the game by the scruff of the neck" and, well, wrest it.

What if there was a rule that went something like as follows?

When one side is surprised and the other is not, the side that is not surprised has initiative for the entire encounter.
Otherwise, roll a d6 to determine which side has initiative for the entire encounter.
A side which "has initiative" acts first.
A side which does not have initiative can attempt to "wrest" it from the other. The method for doing so is as follows:
The player (or DM if acting for NPCs) announces his character is attempting to wrest the initiative by either carrying out an attack or - at the DM's discretion - performing a difficult task. He declares his intended action in the ordinary way at the start of the round. If he succeeds in hitting his target or performing the declared task, he wrests initiative and his side has initiative from the next round onwards. If he fails, in the next round he cannot act at all because of loss of focus.

Tuesday 9 October 2018

Productivity Rules

I decided to get serious with myself about two years ago: no more wasting time. This was a gradual process. I stopped using Twitter and Facebook first. Then I got rid of my smartphone - except for listening to podcasts at the gym and occasionally keeping up with WhatsApp (I keep it in a drawer in my office most of the time). Since around June I have targeted email and device use in general: I don't check email of any kind before noon, and I am off grid by 7.30pm (TV and internet) - no exceptions. In the last two months I have also stopped going to online news websites.

What have I learned from this?

1. I am much more productive. The thing that has probably made the most difference here is cutting down on email and on evening internet use. I now write huge amounts longhand in the evening and get shitloads done in the morning for my "real job". I used to think I had a short attention span. What I've discovered is that having the internet always available, and the TV always on, shorten your attention span and it doesn't take long for you to learn how to lengthen it once those stimuli are removed.

2. Not having a smartphone means not having your headphones on all the time when outside, and it turns out that's really nice - almost like a blessed release from the tyranny of having to constantly be entertained. You start to savour opportunities to just be: a pleasant quasi-meditative state in which you just listen to what's around you and let it stimulate idle thoughts. I also get much more reading done during my commute.

3. Not using social media very much (I am still using G+ in much reduced form) makes a massive difference to your mental health. I was not particularly depressed or anxious before, but I did use to notice that after spending a lot of time dicking around on Facebook or Twitter I would begin to feel edgy, irritable and slightly out-of-sorts - a feeling of vague disappointment with myself and the world. That's gone away. 

4. I haven't missed any major news stories but I have missed a vast amount of inconsequential clickbait shite. Now if I ever do look at, for example, the BBC news website, it has a truly surreal quality - like news made up in a parallel universe by somebody trying to parody what he thinks is "news" here. 

5. Sometimes you want to take a photo but can't, because you don't even have a camera anymore that isn't inside a phone. This is the main disadvantage I've discovered.

6. The second disadvantage is that writing text messages takes ages, and smartphone users have a habit of sending you streams of messages all in one go, so by the time you've finished replying to their first text they've already sent about 5 others.

7. The urge to check your phone and/or email goes away pretty quickly - within about 48 hours. As time goes on you begin to resent having to do it at all, and frequently leave the house forgetting to even take your dumbphone.

8. You become by turns more optimistic and pessimistic. On the one hand, interacting with your fellow human beings in the ways that nature intended and through those ways alone, you generally feel happier and more comfortable, because you see people as they really are: generally decent, nice, community-minded, and lacking in extremism. You don't get to see them through the lens of social media, which turns everybody into an arsehole. On the other hand, you quite often find yourself looking around at all the people glued to their smartphones, compulsively and robotically scrolling as if they are getting paid for it, and despairing about the human race. (These feelings darken even further when looking at parents doing this while their children sit in puzzled and slightly sorrowful silence wondering when Mum/Dad is finally going to acknowledge they are alive.)

I offer these thoughts to you from a position of slight smugness, but you can join me: I don't regret any of the changes I have made whatsoever, and to bring things back on topic, so to speak, if you wish you had more time to devote to this hobby, the above are practical solutions to get it. 

Wednesday 3 October 2018

Hornbill Roc

The biggest and mightiest of all the inhabitants of the Tree are a pair of rocs, male and female. Far from being beasts of legend, they are in fact the only inhabitants of the tree who can be easily seen from the ground below, flying to and from their perches in the distant high canopy on clear days (or disappearing into the clouds when it is overcast). In spring, when the female is sequestered in their nest - a huge gouge in the trunk of the Tree itself - the male can often be seen bringing her food, his wing beats making a sound like that of distant thunder or the rumble of a far-off avalanche.

The nest itself is so large, to accommodate a bird that is over 120' long, that it hosts its own small world of predators and prey: giant beetles feast on the rotting fruit refuse littering the nest bottom; giant ticks lurk in the mass tangle of the bedding, waiting to attach themselves to succulent bloody flesh; armoured lice grope about feeding off whatever filth sloughs off the bodies of birds. In the "roof" of the nest a clan of swiftlet-people build their upside-down dwellings and fight off the predations of the burrowing grubs which dwell in the wood of the trunk; at night they leave to carry out their own raids on their enemies elsewhere. And the walls of the nest are full of cracks, crevasses and crannies, where there hide ambush predators: spiders, centipedes, snakes and much worse.

Almost nobody has visited the rocs' nest; fewer still do it and return. It is rumoured that down in its deepest, dankest, dirtiest place there lives a fakir who survives off fruit and other cast-offs and pursues complete self-abegnation - and this gives him insights into the nature of reality which no other is yet to grasp.